At this time of year, Canadians may be preoccupied with paying off their holiday credit card expenses – and not thinking too much about longer term prospects. With high unemployment, continuing stock market declines and worrying news about the European and American fiscal crises, many Canadians have been lowering their debt loads.
Their federal government is planning to do the same. The trick is to cut without stalling a fragile recovery, while making the investments necessary to ensure sustainability for the next generation of Canadians.
While this may seem to be entirely an economic exercise, important ethical issues are involved. Christians can use this opportunity to consider the type of budget that will best reflect our deeply-held values.
This spring, our federal government will present the 2012 budget. This will be the first concrete indication of the spending priorities of the majority Conservative government. Canada's finance minister has signaled his plan to make an immediate $1 billion in spending cuts (followed by billions more in future years) to address the country's $31-billion deficit.
A lot of angst is being expressed in the country's social sector about what these cuts could mean. Several international organizations (including the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace) have been left waiting for months now, and fear they may lose grants to support worthy projects overseas.
The parliamentary budget officer reports that up to 6,000 public servants could receive pink slips over the next three years.
So what should a budget do – if judged by ethical standards?
A biblical ethic would demand that our society get its priorities straight: Our first call is to defend the orphans, the widows and the strangers (Deuteronomy 10.18; 24.17-21.)
Strangely, when we look at Canada today, we find that children in single-support families and newcomers to Canada (those here for less than a decade) are over-represented among those groups of people living in poverty.
In Alberta, according to Food Banks Canada, 58,735 individuals were assisted by food banks last March. This number was up a staggering 75 per cent since 2008, with 44 per cent of users under age 18.
At the same time, most Canadians realize that the poor are growing poorer, and the rich, richer. A Jan. 2 report of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported that, even in these turbulent economic times, the average of Canada's CEO elite 100 make 189 times more than Canadians earning the average wage.
Over the past 25 years, according to a recent study by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, earnings of the wealthy in Canada grew by 16 per cent, while those of the poor dropped 21 per cent.
There are tendencies inherent in capitalist markets that generate inequality. Government interventions can regulate markets and distribute income to avoid extremes of inequality that eventually harm everyone in society. Will budget 2012 increase or decrease inequality in Canada?
While Canadians may believe that governments tend to use their contributions to favour the poorest income groups, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards reminds us that government redistribution efforts mostly favour the elderly.
There is an important lesson to consider: when Canadians decided to address poverty among seniors in the 1960s, we made a plan, implemented the OAS and GIS, and succeeded. Now, seniors have the lowest poverty rate of any demographic group.
Surely, if people of faith decided that we've seen enough poverty in Canada, we could make common cause with others and encourage Ottawa to develop a plan, and make major progress towards eradicating poverty among other target groups – like people with disabilities, children or aboriginal Canadians.
Of course, not all cuts can or should be avoided, and sometimes our political leaders must make tough choices.
When Citizens for Public Justice presented a brief to the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Finance last August, we suggested measures that would not cost more, but that would lower inequality, assist the vulnerable and sustain livelihoods in beneficial ways. We recommended three alternatives:
Budgets are all about choices. Remember to place your own values first whenever you hear the mistaken mantra that "the economy" presents us with no options. Christians can be the leaven in societal movements that place the needs of the vulnerable and the earth above the wants of the few. The choice is ours.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)